This year, I have the pleasure of studying the Book of Exodus together with the lay-led Hebrew Bible study group at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I serve as senior rabbi. This d'var Torah draws on comments and realizations from members of the study group.
Many community school systems feature magnet schools that have positioned themselves to attract the best and the brightest by establishing programs for "gifted students." Initially these programs sought to attract students who scored higher than average on standardized academic tests. As magnet programs have grown in popularity, they have expanded to include those gifted in the arts, sciences, leadership, foreign languages, and so on. The most sophisticated of the magnet schools recognize that each child has gifts, and that it is the school's job to help each student uncover his or her own unique talents.
Nonetheless, reaching the bar of distinction across a wide range of areas, versus cultivating a superior talent in one area, has become the norm we demand of our children. Odyssey of the Mind, America's Battle of the Books, Elite Soccer, The International Baccalaureate, and American Legion Baseball: our children are expected to excel in not just one, but all of these and more. Colleges demand high school students demonstrate superior skills in advanced placement college-level courses and then refuse to give them college credit for the college work they complete in high school. So many students are tutored for perfection in standardized testing that a student who misses one or two questions on a three-hour exam risks missing the cutoff for entry into the college for which he or she has been groomed for years. Can fifty percent of the kids in a third grade class really qualify for intellectually gifted programs? If all of our children are that gifted then what does gifted mean?
Parashat Ki Tisa teaches a more differentiated understanding of what it means to be gifted. The parashah highlights the unique skills and talents of Bezalel, the artisan who directs and engineers the artistic construction of the Tabernacle. Bezalel's special gifts are named and lauded by none other than the Holy One of Being. The Torah states: "See, I have singled out by name Bezalel...I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft" (Exodus 31:2-3). Bezalel's skill was unique to him; it was not something that could be replicated or taught to scores of Israelites. His artistic abilities defined him, and his purpose and presence.
Twelfth-century Torah scholar Nachmamides saw this gift as a seed planted directly from God: "It is a miracle that God found anyone among them [the Israelites who had been so long in slavery in Egypt] who knew all the things Bezalel did...That is why God told Moses, 'See!' He wanted him to see what a miracle it was, and to understand that it was God who had 'endowed him (Bezalel)' with the ability."1 Bezalel's gift was not something that could be tutored into the heads of the masses of the Israelites. He had a singular understanding of how to implement God's vision for the building of the Tabernacle.
What does it mean for Bezalel to be endowed with a gift? The Torah makes it clear that the gift was Bezalel's alone. Exodus Rabbah explains the particular gift given to Bezalel was so important and so unique that it predated even the creation of the universe. It says: "God showed Moses the Book of Adam, and told him, 'At the very first moment of creation, I prepared one person for every task,' ...Our Sages also said, 'Bezalel knew the combinations of letters by which heaven and earth were created."2 Bezalel's gift was in the power to combine the elements to create beauty. He knew how to put the pieces of the Tabernacle together with grace, elegance, and dignity. That was his unique gift, but the Sages' text clearly states that it was not Bezalel alone who received special propensities. "One person for every task," the Sages wrote.3 Each individual is endowed with a gift from God. Each person has their own talent, the contribution that is theirs alone to make on this earth.
At Temple Beth Or, the Torah study class focused on the divine origin of Bezalel's gift: "endowed...with a divine spirit" (Exodus 31:3). Ed, an engineer and project manager, says that Bezalel's divine gift went well beyond artistry. Bezalel was an engineer, an architect, and an artist. His divine gift encompasses the amalgamation of skill, talent, and knowledge. Maxine C., a writer, felt a resonance with the idea of the divine spirit lifting people beyond what they may think is their natural capacity. She likened this to times when her work seems to "just write itself," pouring out of her. Each individual has a gift within, waiting to be accessed like Bezalel's artistry or Maxine's writing.
Uncovering the gift the divine spirit has planted within is the essence to finding purpose and meaning. The Torah text itself offers a hint as to how one can unearth those gifts. In the parashah, juxtaposed to Bezalel's divine gift is a repetition of the commandment to guard Shabbat. Exodus 31:12-17 culminates with phrases that have become the V'shamru prayer, a fixed part of the Sabbath liturgy. It reminds the Israelites that even the construction of the Tabernacle-the work deemed an actualization of a gift planted by God-does not take precedence over Shabbat. In the Torah study class, Cindy connected the last word of V'shamru, vayinafash, meaning"they were refreshed," to the very act of God planting divine gifts in each individual. Vayinafash comes from the root nun-fei-shin, which comprises the wordnefesh, meaning "soul." The Sabbath offers a chance for that divine gift to be replanted in the soul. So, too, the Sabbath offers the time needed to pause from the frenetic pace and become comfortable with the nefesh God has planted in each person.
The world beats constantly around us, demanding us to excel in every walk of life, and overlooking the possibility of what excellence might be if we were able to hone in on the gifts that truly differentiate us. Shavat vayinafash, "[God] ceased from work and was refreshed." The Sabbath, as a weekly source for renewing those unique divine gifts, has the potential to unlock the culture that marches us to the incessant beat of the drummer to turn every person into a superlative in every area. The Sabbath is the key to finding and celebrating the unique potential in each individual human being.
- Michael Carasik, editor, The Commentators' Bible: Exodus (Philadephia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), p. 275
Rabbi Lucy H. F. Dinner is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabbi Dinner is studying the Book of Exodus with her congregation's lay-led, Hebrew Bible Study Group, which has been studying together for over twenty years.
Rabbi Dinner states in her d'var Torah, "each individual is endowed with a gift from God. Each person has their own talent, the contribution that is theirs alone to make on this earth."
There is so much within Jewish tradition that supports this claim. However, do we actually allow ourselves to believe it? We often ask ourselves or hear others questioning the meaning of life, why we are here, and what our purpose happens to be. We wake up each day, go through our morning rituals (which includes, for some, that all-important "cup of joe"), and head out to work or wherever we go in the pursuit of...what? How many of us actually just go through the motions of our daily life so we can pay the bills, put dinner on the table, get the kids to soccer or dance, or yes, to Hebrew school? Do we take the time necessary to reflect on our own lives? Do we ever allow ourselves to think there might be a special purpose for us or that God has put us here for a reason? If God has truly endowed all of us with unique gifts, just as we see with Bezalel, we owe it to ourselves to search our souls and utilize those gifts. If we don't, they sit there lying dormant, draining away their potential year after year.
There is a beautiful story from the midrash that teaches us about these gifts from God. My dear friend Dr. Dan Gottlieb retells it beautifully in his book Learning from the Heart.
He writes, "In a letter to my grandson Sam, I told him the wonderful Jewish teaching about the imprint that child receives from God before he is born. After giving the unborn child all the wisdom needed to succeed in life, God puts His finger on the child's lips and says, 'Sssssh.' And at that moment, when we're imbued with knowledge, God forever leaves an impression on the upper lip" (Dr. Dan Gottlieb, Learning from the Heart, [New York: Sterling Publishing, 2008], p. 29). It is up to us to tap into that knowledge and make the most of our time here on earth.
It is never too late to find your hidden talents and gifts and put them to good use. Bezalel didn't wait. Neither should you.
Rabbi Larry Sernovitz is associate rabbi at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, Pennsylvania.
"Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520"